I Already Know What This Country’s About: Keeping Your Mouth Shut

Posted on December 23, 2011 by


My landlord Gilbert and I were talking about how he used to know a professor from my school.  The professor was a computer scientist with a “hot wife.” Then the hot wife left him.  Professor was sobbing in plain sight for everyone to see.

How did he ever meet such a laughable individual?

Come to think of it, he’d met him at a country dance club.  The professor was from the south, and that country dance club is where he felt at home.  That club was how he and Gilbert became acquainted.

They hadn’t spoken since that sobbing incident.

Just as a reminder, Gilbert is the aging 2nd generation Mexican-American who sounds like a white guy, Ibrahim is the 6’2 somewhat stereotypical, yet fiercely independent-minded black guy, I’m the young, shortish Filipino-American 27-year old student who is quiet but not quiet.

Gilbert made the remark, that if he, Ibrahim, and I showed up together to that country club, representatives of the “Micro-United Nations”, they would’ve thrown us out on sight.

Ibrahim, somewhat in and out of the kitchen, where this conversation between Gilbert and I was taking place, chimed in, “Heh, I already know what this country is about.”

What’d he mean by that?  It was a succinct quote, something I brooded on hours, days, months, up to now after the nanosecond it took him to say it.

On one level it meant, that this country was “about” being discriminatory and racist.  On a deeper level, what Ibrahim was saying was that he already knew how things worked, and did his best to avoid bullshit.  “Bullshit” being anything encompassing biased decision-making by bosses, office politics, difficult personalities.

Best way to avoid such bullshit:  keeping your mouth shut.

Keeping your mouth shut was usually what Ibrahim did.

Not as much for my landlord Gilbert.

Gilbert grew up in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles in the 1960s.  You wouldn’t know from the way he talked to you.  He was a little too young to participate in the student blowouts that had been happening, but was very aware of it.  He always remembered something his dad had told him, “Don’t ever let anyone discriminate against you.  If they’re against the black man, they’re also going to discriminate against you, son.”  He was educated in a way to expect discrimination and fight against it.

He carried this ethic in the way he selected tenants for his household.  An openness to diversity if you will.  He’d been through a motley crew coalition of tenants, from a 23-year old white girl who brought her boyfriend over all the time, to some white guy running from the law, to Ibrahim, to me.

You could see his openness to diversity in the way he talks to people at local take-out restaurants and other businesses.  He takes time to inquire service-handlers about how they’re doing, how they got here, what are they doing here.  To me, as generation Y growing up in 1990s-2000s LA, it’s a bit awkward and perhaps initially intrusive, but ultimately friendly and harmless.

I get the sense that the way he projects this openness to diversity used to get him business.  He’s talked about times in his 20 years of contracting where people thought of him as white.  People he did business with as an independent contractor would feel safe making beaner jokes around him, which made him feel all kinds of awkward.  However, he had no choice but to keep his mouth shut about what he actually felt.  Only way he could keep his business afloat.

However, when he was forced out of his business and into a workplace setting and he opened his mouth, the results have been disastrous.  In one of his part-time jobs at Home Depot, he’d told off a manager.  The job shows up in background reports as an instance of when he was last employed and was terminated, which just looks horrible for someone who has lots of construct knowledge and skill and made a substantial amount of money as a free-lance electrician.

Currently, he’s dealing with a job in which he’s spoken out again.  There is a physical toll that lifting paint cans takes on him.  There are younger people.  He has a bachelor’s degree, but doesn’t make much money doing what he does.  He’s recently lashed out at a young Assistant manager who appears to micro-manage as a means of establishing control in an all-boys club.  Gilbert is now constantly on edge with getting a new job.

My roommate Ibrahim is balling his new job.  He’s probably the most social of my roommates, but he shuts his mouth and seems to close up and disengage when it comes to anything that might seem dramatic.

He grew up in Detroit.  On his own since he was 16, with some brothers.  He’d grown up in the hood, and was just trying to find his way out of it.  The only logical way out of the hood was to get out or be put out, and he tried his best to get out.  He’d seen brothers and friends go the other way.

He’s a simple guy who finds his way out of drama.  He’s makes just a few definitive statements.  Though he does like to project a black masculinity with the woofer-blasted rap music, he hardly ever mentions race when we discuss anything, especially when he’s talking about selling cars to customers, playing basketball, or dating women so I’m always wondering with whom he’s dealing with when describing an interaction with someone.  I never press the issue, and generally find myself surprised to find out when he does mention anything that he’s dealing with South African women, selling cars to Asian, white guys/girls, rich people/poor people.  Generally, I get the sense that race is not really an issue for him and what he likes doing which is basically a combination of:  exercising, eating, hooking up with women.

However, he has as of late been more open about his views, at least to me.  When he was in college as a slightly older student, he remembers a guy named Chris in a business administration class.  Through family connections, Chris had experience working for a company.  He’d been a top student in the class.  So had Ibrahim.

One time Ibrahim got a perfect score on a test.  When the professor announced this, Chris openly questioned, “who got that?”  The professor looked at, and pointed at Ibrahim.  Chris openly questioned, “you?”

Another time Chris had announced an opening through the professor at his dad’s company.  Ibrahim sent him his resume.  However, Chris told him “I seem to have never gotten your resume.  But we did select someone else already, I’m sorry.”

“Typical white guy,” Ibrahim told me.